Captain Hook’s Gallery: Baja’s Scorpion of the Sea
Anyone who has ever spent much time around tide pools along the California coast has probably noticed small members of the sculpin family darting quickly between limpets, barnacles, and sea anemones. They practically disappear when they sit motionless, their natural camouflage blending with the mottled rocks around them.
Most California scorpionfish (Scorpaena guttata) are found in Pacific Ocean waters, but there is also a considerable population of related species that occur in the Sea of Cortez. They are usually caught over hard, rocky bottoms from just below the water’s surface to depths of over 600 feet, and occasionally over mud or sand. They range in color from dark orange-brown to bright red, and rarely exceed 4 pounds in weight.
Their diet includes mussels, small crabs, squid, octopus, and a variety of the small fish that share their territory. Sculpin will readily take a piece of squid, mussel, or anchovy that has been lowered to the bottom in one of the rocky areas that they are known to inhabit. Small plastic grubs in various colors are also very effective in catching sculpin, particularly when tipped with a thin strip of squid. At times, chumming with small pieces of squid, mussel, or sea urchin will also help attract them to the area. As a bonus, the firm, white, delicately flavored fillets of mature sculpin are a delightful treat for the gourmet palate.
But, alas, nature usually has a counterbalance in store for those who would harvest and consume the tastiest of its seafood delights. In this case, the sculpin sports poisonous dorsal and pectoral fins that can be painfully sharp.
While growing up, I had always heard the horrible stories about what happened when unlucky anglers found themselves on the business end of a sculpin’s dorsal fin. When I actually witnessed the event in living color, you can be assured that it was not a pretty sight.
I was aboard an open party sportfisher out of Ensenada in late spring many years ago when an unwary 16-year old fisherman visiting from Arizona turned from the rail holding up one of these spike-finned toads by the lip as if it were some kind of freshwater bass and chirped, “What the heck kind of fish is this ugly sucker?”
“Watch out, amigo!” shouted a nearby deckhand who immediately realized the peril that his young passenger was in. “Just drop the fish on the deck, my friend, I’ll take care…” But it was too late.
“YEOWWWW!” Shrieked the unfortunate young man. “He STUCK me!! Oh, man …this really hurts!!” He screamed as we all looked on, stunned and frozen by the unexpected turn of events. Within five minutes, he was lying on a bench inside the galley writhing in indescribable agony, his hand swollen to nearly twice its normal size. Our trip was cut short, of course, as the boat immediately headed back to port so the passenger could receive some much needed medical attention.
This word to the wise should be sufficient to remind everyone that the sculpin may be beguiling as table fare, but it must also be afforded the same respect that you would extend to a scorpion or a rattlesnake. Immediately after catching one that you intend to keep, be sure to snip off the spines before putting it into your fish box.
Once filleted, my favorite technique for cooking sculpin is to simply dust them in flour, dip them quickly in beaten egg, and then roll them in panko style Japanese breadcrumbs.
After letting them set up in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes, fry them lightly fried until golden brown in an equal mixture of olive oiland garlic butter. They are great on the plate with a little rice and veggie, but also make a fantastic fish sandwich.
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